I didn’t dance at Springsteen Tuesday night. I couldn’t. All of a sudden, it seems I’ve become one of those people with lower back pain that intrudes on every aspect of their life, who plods from medical professional to medical professional looking for answers and relief. I was in such pain the night before the show that I contemplated the unthinkable: not going. But in the end, I came to my senses. It’s Bruce. When he comes to town, you go. So I did, and I sat and when I stood up I couldn’t shake my hips, only sing, clap and nod. In my heart, I was dancing crazy down in the pit, but in reality, I had become one of those sedentary concert people that I used to snark about. In short, I’ve got a bad case of middle-age.
So, I apologize that this isn’t going to be a long analytical review of the E Street Band at HP Arena in San Jose on the Wrecking Ball tour. I can’t sit comfortably long enough to write that piece right now. But I need to put down a few thoughts.
First of all, this was one of the Bruciest Bruce shows I’ve ever seen since moving to the Bay Area in 1987. I was raised on the legendary Boston and Northeast region Bruce shows of yore. But this one was classic, and completely unexpected. The energy in the building was wilder by far than the last two E Street shows I’ve seen there (2002 and 2009). And Springsteen devoured the energy like Pac Man. I never thought I’d see another three-hour Springsteen show, at least on this coast. But there it was, clocking in at 3 hours and 9 minutes. Bruce stage-dived, climbed on the piano, pulled out “Rosalita” and “Backstreets”, kept signalling the band for one more, one more. He’s a little less agile than he used to be — I get the feeling that self-deprecating old-man-shuffle dance he’s doing now is more out of necessity as a breath-catcher than as vaudeville. But then, he can still bend himself backwards from the mike stand, which is more than I can say for myself.
The songs from Wrecking Ball are pretty terrific on the record, but in concert they are luminous (especially “Rocky Ground”), and more so in the context of these shows. This tour is about carrying on. When I first heard that Springsteen was going to tour with the E Street Band again, in the wake of Clarence Clemons’ passing, I wasn’t sure that he hadn’t lost his mind. And to take along Clemons’ young nephew Jake on saxophone? Is this really a good idea? But, as he did on his 9/11 album The Rising , Bruce knew exactly what this moment demanded. He grew up on stage with the Big Man by his side. We grew up watching and listening to them. But we’re all older now, some of us are sick, some of us have suffered losses, some of us have been kicked around by life. And we’re learning: You go on. You have to.
And Tuesday night, when the spotlight found Jake Clemons on the back riser alongside the other horn players, and he nailed, note-perfect, his uncle’s solo on “Badlands,” and then raised his sax in one hand and looked heavenward, I understood. The sax solos are in tribute to Clarence, not in replacement. And Springsteen means this tour to be a public memorial, a chance for us to grieve together. When Springsteen introduced the band during “My City of Ruins,” and then asked, “Are we missing anybody?,” the audience seemed to let out a collective sob. “If we’re here, and you’re here, they’re here,” Springsteen repeated. And the final verse — “Without your sweet kiss my soul is lost my friend/ Tell me how do I begin again?” — has never sounded more bereaved, nor the “Rise up” chorus more soothing.
Later, on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” Springsteen stood on a riser in the middle of a sea of general admission fans on the floor and sang, “The change was made up town when the Big Man joined the band”, and then the music stopped and a montage of Clemons clips played on the video screens, while the band stood at attention and the audience clapped and cried and clapped some more. And then the band hit the beat and Springsteen continued, “From the coastline to the city all the little pretties raised their hands,” and we raised our hands and Scooter and the Big Man busted this city in half, again.
The necessity of continuing, flesh weak, spirit willing, diminished by age and time, but still alive … yeah, I can relate. “It’s only our bodies that betray us in the end,” Springsteen sang on “We Are Alive,” and the horns strolled down to surround him like a mariachi band, playing the joyous riff from “Ring of Fire.” And it’s hard to feel miserable when you’re listening to mariachi horns.
I’ve always identified with Springsteen. We were both raised blue collar, we both saw music as salvation, we both became parents the same year, and we’re growing old together. I’ve always needed to hear his music and his message to keep me going, but I really needed it that night in San Jose. So, thanks, my friend. And now, I need an ice pack.
© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2012